‘Kids go hungry because of stolen school nutrition funds’

Needy pupils at schools in Queenstown in the Eastern Cape are going hungry in the mornings. They are being fed a single meal of rice and gravy a day because of alleged corruption in school feeding programmes. 

Despite the launch of a full investigation into the abuse by the provincial education department – following complaints from whistle-blowers earlier this year – children are still being underfed at affected schools. Risk management officials appointed by the department to probe further, are still to visit the schools. 

When City Press visited the town last month, teachers spoke at length about their situation. They told of food being served on old, dented enamel plates in some schools. In others, there was no cutlery for children to eat with. 

The teachers, from three schools in the Queenstown district – St Theresa’s Primary, Kwa-Komani Comprehensive School and Mpendulo Public Primary School – all asked not to be identified for fear of victimisation. 

At St Theresa’s, 18 teachers wrote to the department asking for a probe into the school’s procurement practices and the way the nutrition scheme was administered after they were refused access to a series of procurement meetings by the school governing body. The nutrition programme feeds about 1.6 million pupils in the province’s 5 300 primary and secondary schools and costs about R110 000 per school, per month. 

But teachers claimed that not all the money allocated to their schools was being spent on feeding schoolchildren. 

“It’s heartbreaking what we see every day. We are meant to be providing breakfast and lunch. Most days we can only manage gravy and pap or rice for lunch, and that’s it,” said a teacher at St Theresa’s Primary. 

“In the past, we were able to provide breakfast and lunch, but now we cannot, even though we are told money is being saved from the fund. How can we save money when children are going hungry?” 

The teacher said children were being fed on worn enamel plates that were badly chipped and a hygiene threat, and there were not enough eating utensils available. 

By Wednesday, the school had still not received a visit from the province’s investigators. 

“Nobody has responded to our complaints,” a second teacher confirmed. 

Those who oversee the national school nutrition programme at Kwa-Komani have also written to the department requesting a probe into “anomalies” involving the alleged misappropriation of R150 000 earlier this year. Their school principal was suspended in connection with missing funds, but later reinstated. 

“We have big problems around the feeding scheme and financial management,” said a teacher from Kwa-Komani, who asked not to be named. “We believe there is collusion between the school governing body and the principal over procurement. We have raised this countless times with the unions and the department, but it is continuing.” 

At the beginning of July, the principal of Mpendulo Public Primary was also suspended pending an investigation into financial irregularities at the school over nutrition and the employment of feeding staff. 

“There’s a problem right through the district. People are overbuying groceries for the school and taking it for themselves, or paying themselves through ghost service providers,” said another concerned teacher.

“There is a culture of impunity around it because there is no will do deal with the situation,” the teacher said. 

The problem is not restricted to the Queenstown district. 

In June, the principal and two teachers at the Kubusie Combined School in Stutterheim were arrested for stealing food from the scheme at the school. They will appear in court next month. 

The three, principal Zukile Ntlanzi and teachers Nomakhosazana Ncunani and Daniwe Jakuja, are accused of stealing groceries from the feeding scheme, as well as tablets and computers from the school. They have been released on bail. 

Department spokesperson Loyiso Phulumani confirmed this week that its risk management unit had probed alleged corruption in its nutrition programme at Queenstown schools in response to a series of complaints from teachers and school governing bodies. 

While he declined to provide more detail, quoting the “sensitivity” of the investigation, he said the inquiry was “likely to expand to include other schools”.

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